M.G. Piety

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Kierkegaard as Liberal Theologian

In Conference news, Uncategorized on July 2, 2018 at 2:24 pm

munich-towers

I’m giving a paper at a conference on liberal theology at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich later this month. I’m a philosopher by training rather than a theologian, so I’ve been doing some reading in preparation for the conference. One of the books I’ve been reading is Michael J. Langford’s A Liberal Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Langford lists, in his introduction, what he asserts are the basic characteristics of liberal theology. The two most fundamental characteristics, according to Langford, are (a) “The desire to use rational methods, including those of the empirical sciences, as far as they can be taken,” (b) The confident “pursuit of truth” from the perspective of belief “in a God who is active in the world, and who is the source of all that is” (22-23).

From these two characteristics, Langford derives five more:

  1. c) The refusal to be overawed by tradition or authority when strong objections to a belief or a practice are raised.

  2. d) A dislike of any formal links between church and state.

  3. e) A general scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience.

  4. f) A tolerant attitude to those who disagree, including an appeal to reason rather than coercion.

  5. g) A stress on the importance of the individual that rejects the relevance of distinctions based on nationality, race, religion, social standing and gender, except when these things can be shown to be relevant for the issue being considered. Respect for the individual includes encouraging each person to develop their own rationality and their own conscience, rather than being reliant on authority.

Much has traditionally been made of Kierkegaard’s purported conservatism. It struck me, however, as I read through this list, that Kierkegaard’s thought had every single one of these characteristics. Given Kierkegaard’s reputation as an irrationalist, people who are only superficially acquainted with Kierkegaard may be surprised to learn that he had (a) “a desire to use rational methods.” In fact, Kierkegaard prided himself on the rigor of his thought (see, for example, Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks [hereafter: KJN] vol. 7, pp. 182-183), and most specialists know that Kierkegaard was a very rigorous and systematic thinker (see, for example, the preface to C. Stephen Evans’ Passionate Reason, as well as the first chapter of Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard in Routledge’s Arguments of the Philosophers series).

Another way Langford describes the second characteristic of liberal theology is that it involves “a conviction that [God] is to be found wherever the human mind can reach” (23). This one is a little trickier because Kierkegaard is adamant that God is never found directly in the world, but only indirectly, when the world is seen through the eyes of faith (see, for example Philosophical Crumbs, 114-116). If we return to Langford, however, we see that such faith is precisely the foundation of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth. If seeing God in the world is the end of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth, faith that God is to be found there is also his starting point. And that is precisely Kierkegaard’s position. One will never find God, according to Kierkegaard, through, for example, the simple contemplation of nature, but one can find God in nature if one sees nature through the eyes of faith, as his discourse entitled “What We Learn from the Lillies of the Field and From the Birds of the Air” (from Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits) makes clear.

Now to the more specific characteristics of liberal theology. Far from being “overawed by tradition or authority,” Kierkegaard is constantly critical of it (c). He criticizes Luther repeatedly (see, for example, KJN vol. 4, pp. 373-375; 410; 427, and The Moment and Late Writings, 39). He even goes so far as to criticize the apostles (see, for example KJN vol. 10, pp. 12, 18, 41, 107). He was vehemently opposed to “any formal links between church and state” (d) as is apparent in his observations that “a State Church is made possible only by deceptively conjuring forth the impression that everyone is Christian” (KJN vol. 9, pp. 331),[1] and “[e]very attempt to establish a Christian state and a Christian people is eo ipso unchristian” (Papir 493 1854; my translation).[2]

Kierkegaard’s “scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience” was the foundation of his antipathy for “pure thought” (e), and his definition of faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness” (CUP [Swenson-Lowrie], 182) makes clear that faith could never be coerced (f).

Finally, everyone knows that Kierkegaard emphasized the importance of the individual. He may have been personally sexist, racist, and even antisemitic, at least toward the end of his life, but there is nothing in his works that would support the view that we are not all equal in the eyes of God, and equally capable, or incapable, of establishing the proper relation to God through relentless, passionate, conscientious self examination. (I added the qualification “incapable” because establishing the proper relation to God is something, according to Kierkegaard, with respect to which we all need God’s help.)

Kierkegaard was politically conservative not because he lacked sympathy for the common man, and not because he had any particular faith in the social and economic elite. If anything, he had even less faith in the latter than in the former. He believed that elites tended to “to base the state on a substratum of people whom [they] totally ignore[d], denying all kinship with them” (KJN vol. 6, p. 219), and that this was “unchristian and ungodly.”

Kierkegaard was politically conservative because he had an inherent distrust of collectives (a distrust which history appears to vindicate) and because the model of monarchy with which he was most familiar, as I argued earlier, was exceptionally benevolent.

There is no question that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. I hope it is clear now, however, that theologically, he is solidly in the liberal tradition.

 

[1]. I have altered the translation here because while the text of KJN is not technically incorrect (apart from the fact that “only” is in the wrong position), it is so awkward that it significantly misrepresents the character of the original.

[2]. I’m unable to give the  reference for this quotation because it is in volume 10 and that volume is not yet available in Drexel’s library. I have included a link, however, to the online version of the Danish text.

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Report from the Pacific APA

In Conference news, Uncategorized on April 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm

I chaired a session on practical reasoning at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association last month. The session was great. The presenter, Ting Cho Lau, was a very sharp graduate student from Notre Dame. His paper was entitled “Tough Choices, Reasons, and Practical Reasoning,” and his argument was that none of the dominant theories of why “tough choices” are tough either adequately explains the phenomenon of toughness or holds out much promise of providing agents with guidance for making such choices.

I won’t go into Lau’s specific criticisms of each of the dominant theories. What will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is that Lau argues none of those theories adequately acknowledges that tough choices, such as what career to choose, often involve the shaping of a person’s identity and so among the many considerations that must be looked at is what kind of person it is possible for one to become. Not everyone can, for example, become a great opera star. Even those who are excellent singers by most standards may have to accept at some point that their talents will likely limit them to more minor roles. That kind of self-examination is very difficult and that does indeed go a long way to explaining why at least some tough choices are so tough.

Lau’s paper was clearly presented and well argued. It was also ambitious, though, in that he proposed not simply to give a more adequate account of why tough choices were tough, but also to provide agents with guidance for making them less tough. It seems to me, however, that knowing that a choice is so “tough” because it involves figuring out just who exactly one is and who one is capable of becoming isn’t necessarily going to make the choice any less difficult. It seems entirely possible, in fact, that it might make the choice even more difficult.

The situation is even more complex, I would argue, than Lau presented it as being because the issue is not simply that of determining what kind of person one is capable of becoming, but also of determining what kind of person one wants to become. Usually, we are pulled in various directions with respect to that issue. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge that we may want to become someone (a famous opera singer, for example) that we simply don’t have the talent to become, it is even harder, Kierkegaard would argue, to determine who we really want to become. We want to become good people, people pleasing to God (or, if we are not religious, at least pleasing to our neighbors, or to those in our culture more generally), and yet, and yet, we are also drawn toward decisions that would make us into quite another sort of person.

There is, as Kant would say, a corruption in the subjective determining ground of our will. Or, as Kierkegaard would put it, we are “double-minded.” Arguably, that is the real reason why at least some choices are so “tough.” It isn’t all that difficult, generally, to decide on a career, or on whom to marry. Many people, in fact, would describe these choices as having been made for them, in a sense, by inclinations that were so strong they didn’t really seem like choices. Other sorts of choice, however, are not so easy. Deciding, for example, whether to stick up for a colleague who is being bullied and harassed when doing so might expose one to the same treatment––now that can be difficult!

The session was great, though, and Lau’s paper is a work-in-progress that even in light of the above criticism is better than many a paper I’ve seen published in peer-reviewed journals. The commentator, Susan Vineberg, from Wayne State University was also excellent, and the session as a whole was exceptionally well run. I’m not tooting my own horn there. I was only one of three chairs for three separate papers and actually the weakest link in that chain in that I mistakenly assumed the respondent had the same length of time to present her remarks as had the presenter. Each presenter got twenty minutes and each respondent got ten, so even though the entire session was three hours long, it went by in a stimulating flash.

My favorite session, however, was one of two sessions put on by The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. The topic of the session was love and “attachment.” Each of the three speakers was good. The highlight of the session for me, however, was the last speaker, Monique Wonderly of Princeton. Her paper was entitled “Love, Caring, and the Value of Attachment.” Wonderly argued, in terms such as I had used in the speech I gave at my father’s memorial service, that “[a]ttachment figures help to shape our senses of self, imbue us with self-confidence, and can serve as a source of emotional regulation and support even in their absence.”

I am really happy to have discovered The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. I knew about its existence before, of course, but for some reason I had assumed it was more about sex than it was about love, or that when it treated love that it was only sexual, or romantic love. I was wrong. The session was wonderful and would have been of enormous interest to Kierkegaard scholars.

There was one session on Kierkegaard. It was sort of a stealth session because Kierkegaard was not mentioned in the title of the session. The title was simply “Political Theology Group.” All the papers were on Kierkegaard, though. Unfortunately, the session was not well run. There were four speakers and a respondent for a two-hour session! It wasn’t clear how much time had been allotted to each speaker or whether any of them ran over that time. There was no time for questions, however, none. Hence there was no discussion whatever and there really should have been because some of the presenters appeared to be laboring under the erroneous view that Kierkegaard was generally contemptuous of the plight of the poor and the downtrodden and that there really wasn’t much in Kierkegaard that would provide a foundation for a positive political philosophy. I won’t rehash that tired argument or my response to it here. Go back and look at the earlier posts on this blog relating to Daphne Hampson’s book and Peter Gordon’s review of it for my comments on that view. Actually, one kind reader of this blog sent me a long list of quotations from Kierkegaard’s works that support his concern for the poor and downtrodden. I am going to use that list in a future post––with proper attribution, of course.

Just as an aside, I should alert readers to the fact that there is going to be a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November the theme of which will be “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology. A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” I know some of the speakers already and I can tell you that it promises to be a very good session indeed. Bob Perkins, about whom I will write more later, deserves nothing less. He was a true giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and he will be sorely missed.

There were lots of other great sessions at the Pacific APA meeting, including Onora O’Neill’s Berggruen Prize lecture that included comments from Andrew Chignell of Princeton and Eric Watkins of U.C. San Diego. Yes, that’s right, Andrew Chignell appears to have moved already from Penn to Princeton. And I was so happy and excited to have him here in Philly. That guy is really smart, and, as I learned from that session, a fantastic speaker.

Remembering the Dead

In Translation issues, Uncategorized on March 19, 2018 at 11:52 am

9d1af61698cd834326cd38729144efaa--mourning-jewelry-opalineI’m on sabbatical now. My plan had been to use this time to finish Fear and Dissembling, the book I have been working on for many years. I’d conceived that plan, however, before my father died, and since his death I’ve found it hard to get back to that project. I’ve actually found it hard to do anything constructive. I need to do something, though, to occupy my time until my powers of concentration have returned, something worthwhile, so I have hit upon a project that I have so far found very therapeutic. I am translating the chapter from Works of Love entitled “The Work of Love of Remembering the Dead.” My plan is to find a publisher for this little book so that it can be available as a comfort to people who have recently lost someone they love. It will be a very slim volume because the chapter is only ten pages or so long, so even with the original Danish text on facing pages, a translator’s introduction, a preface, and very wide margins, it should come in well under a hundred pages.

I think it should have very wide margins because wide margins make for a more attractive page. The volume I am envisioning will be small and thin and beautiful, something that the bereaved can carry around with them, like a breast-pocket New Testament; something they can find comfort in, not merely because of the words, but because of the beauty of the object itself. There is something comforting about beauty. People realize this at an instinctive level. That’s the reason, or at least part of the reason, for mourning jewelry. That’s also part of the reason, I believe, why there is so much work on the relation between aesthetics and religion.

I have pasted the first two pages of my translation below. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I favor what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation,” or translation that endeavors to preserve the sense of the original, or “source,” text but which tends to be freer than “literal” or “faithful” translation (see Peter Newmark, A Textbook of Translation). Hence I have taken a few liberties in the text below. The term “graveyard” (i.e., Kirkegaard) does not appear in the original. Where I have “go out to a graveyard,” in the second paragraph, the text actually reads “gaae ud til de Døde” ––i.e., “go out to the dead.” My husband thought, however, when I gave him the text to read, that this might be a little disorienting to the reader, so he suggested that for at least this first reference to “de Døde,” I substitute “graveyard” for “the dead.” That seemed to me a good suggestion, so I have taken it.

I have also added, at my husband’s suggestion, more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. The entire text below is only two long paragraphs in the original, and that is also, I fear, a little disorienting.

I used both the Swensons’ translation from 1946 and the older Hongs’ translation from 1962 as guides. The Swensons’ translation is, unsurprisingly, generally superior to the Hongs’, but even it is not without problems as I will explain in detail in the eventual “Translator’s Introduction.” For now, the only translation issue I want to draw your attention to, in addition to the aforementioned one, is my choice of “reduced circumstances” for Kierkegaard’s “indskrænke sig.” That, I hope you will agree, is a clear improvement on both the Hongs’ “cut back,” and even the Swensons’ “restrict itself.”

But read the text and judge for yourself.

When, for some reason or other, a person fears he will be unable to maintain a general grasp of something complicated and complex, he tries to make, or to acquire, a brief summarizing concept of the whole –– to help him maintain his grasp. Death, in this way, is the shortest summary of life, or life reduced to its shortest form. That’s why it has always been so important to those who reflect on the meaning of life, frequently to test what they have understood about it by means of this short summary. For no thinker has such a command of life as death has, that powerful thinker, who is able not merely to think through every illusion, but to grasp it in its parts and as a whole, to think it to nothingness.

If then, you become confused when you consider the many and various paths life can take, go out to a graveyard, there “where all paths meet” –– then the grasp becomes easy. If your head swims from constantly observing and hearing about life’s diversities, then go out to the dead; there you have control of the differences; there in “Muldets Frænder,” “the fellowship of mold,” there are no differences, only close kinship. That all human beings are blood relations, that is, of one blood, this consanguinity is often denied in life, but that they are of one mold, are related through mortality, cannot be denied.

Yes, go again out among the dead, so that you can, from there, get a view of life. This is what a sharpshooter does. He seeks a place where the enemy can’t hit him but from which he can hit the enemy, and where he can have the requisite calm for taking aim. Don’t choose the evening for your visit because the stillness of the evening, of an evening spent among the dead, is often not far from a certain exaltation of mood which strains and “fills one with restlessness,” creating new mysteries instead of solving the old ones.

No, go there early in the morning when the sun peeps between the branches, alternating light with shadow, when the beauty and friendliness of the sea, when the singing of the birds and the multitudinous life everywhere almost allows you to forget that you are among the dead. It will seem to you as if you have arrived in a foreign country, a place unfamiliar with the distinctions and confusion of life, a childlike place, consisting entirely of small families. Here is attained what is sought vainly in life: equality. Each family has a little plot of land for itself, of approximately equal size. Each has more or less the same “view.” The sun can easily shine equally over them all; no building rises so high that it cuts off the sun’s rays, or the nourishment of the rain, or the wind’s fresh breezes, or the songs of the birds, from a neighbor. No, here everyone is equal.

It happens sometimes in life that a family that has enjoyed wealth and abundance must accept reduced circumstances, but in death, everyone must accept reduced circumstances. There may be minor differences, perhaps six inches in the size of a plot, or that one family has a tree, which another inhabitant does not, on its plot. Why do you think there are these small differences? It is to remind you, by means of a profound jest, of how great the difference was. How loving death is! For it is certainly loving of death to use these small differences to remind us, through edifying humor, of just how great the difference was. Death does not say “there is absolutely no difference”; it says “you see there how great the difference was: six inches.”

If there were not these small differences, neither would death’s grasp be completely reliable. Life returns, in this way, in death, to childishness. Whether one owned a tree, a flower, a rock, made a great deal of difference in childhood. And the difference hinted at what later in life would appear on a very different scale. Now life is over and this little hint of a difference among the dead remains to soften, through humor, the memory of how things were.

In Memoriam

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2018 at 3:37 pm
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Harold Piety, at a talk on civil rights in the 1960s, first row, far right.

My father died on January 6, when I was at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah. It was unexpected. He’d recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, but had been doing very well and had been projected to live at least another six months and possibly even as long as another year or two.

My father’s death has hit me hard because I was very close to him.  I gave the following speech at his memorial service. I thought I would post it here, partly in explanation for why I have not posted in so long, and partly because it mentions Kierkegaard. Several people who attended his memorial service said they found it comforting. I figure nearly everyone has lost someone they loved deeply, so I hope you, my many kind readers, will find it comforting as well.

Marilyn

When I was a little girl, I would wake up sometimes in the night, frightened of what I imagined were monsters hiding under my bed or in my closet. But then I would remember my father, and just the thought of his existence would dispel my fear so that I would be able to go back to sleep. It wasn’t just that I was confident he would protect me from any threat. It was that I felt a world that contained such a person as my father could not possibly also contain monsters.

There can’t be many fathers who inspire such confidence in a child. And my father learned to do that without the benefit any influence of that sort in his own life. He taught himself.

There is something which is a person that is more than the sum of physical parts. It is that thing that is the real person. The physical parts may change, so long as that thing does not, the person remains the same. But since that thing, which is the real person, is not actually a physical thing, it is not subject to corruption or decay as the body is. That was Plato’s proof for the immortality of the soul.

Kierkegaard has a book called Works of Love, and this book has a chapter entitled “The Work of Love in Remembering One Who is Dead.” This, for Kierkegaard, is the supreme act of love because the dead, he observes, cannot love you back, so to love the dead is to love purely without any expectation of being loved in return.

It’s not often that I disagree with Kierkegaard, but I believe he is wrong when he says that the dead cannot love you back. Love, like whatever mysterious thing it is that is a person, is not a physical thing. The evidence of it is often physical, but the love itself is not, hence like the person, it is not subject to decay as the body is.

Kierkegaard speaks, in Philosophical Crumbs, of an historical point of departure for an eternal consciousness. He was talking, of course, about the incarnation, but also, I would argue, about love, which has an historical point of departure every time a new human being is born, but which, as an immaterial thing, cannot help but survive the death of the body.

That is the sense in which we resemble God –– we love. Love has a temporal point of departure every time a human being is born, and the fact of that love, becomes, with its existence, an eternal fact. That my father loved us is a fact about us. It is part of who we are, and it will continue to be part of who we are. Even though he is no longer able to give his love a physical expression, it continues to be real, and those of us who love him will continue to feel it.

Harold Russell Piety will always be real and so will the fact of his love. Those of us who love him will continue to love him and we can expect to feel loved in return.

Angsting Over Translation

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues, Uncategorized on September 27, 2017 at 5:14 pm
Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat - © dennisjacobsen - Fotolia.com

Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat – © dennisjacobsen – Fotolia.com

I took Daphne Hampson to task in an earlier post for referring to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. There are two problems with changing a title like that. First, it’s confusing to the reader, since there is no English translation of Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest with the title The Concept Angst. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard’s “Angest,” or “Angst” (an alternative spelling) is, as Hampson argues “ill-rendered in English as ‘anxiety’” (Hampson, 109). Walter Lowrie, observes Hampson, translated Kierkegaard’s “Angst” (nouns were capitalized in Danish in the nineteenth century) as “dread.” “This is good,” she continues,

in so far as it conjures up the context of Romanticism. Kierkegaard can speak of a ‘sweet angst’ that tantalizes or invites. Angst, he will say, is ‘a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy’ (42). Philosophically the distinction between angst and anxiety (or fear) is said to be that whereas fear has an object, angst is devoid of any such. Animals can know fear, while the human may possess unfocused angst. (Hampson, 110).

I don’t mean to pick on Hampson. Her point isn’t original. I’ve heard many philosophers make essentially the same claim about the German “Angst.” The thing is, there isn’t much evidence to support such a claim. My Oxford-Duden electronic dictionary from 1999 defines “Angst” as “fear,” or “anxiety” with “fear” actually being listed first. Contemporary Danish-English dictionaries do effectively the same thing for the Danish “angst.” See, for example, the venerable Vinterberg-Bodelsen from 1966. It defines “angst” as “dread,” “fear,” “apprehension,” “alarm,” and “anxiety” in that order. Ferrall-Repp, the definitive nineteenth-century Danish-English dictionary defines “angst,” or “Angest” as “fear” or “dread.”

“Anxiety,” “fear,” and “dread,” as well as the German “Angst” and Danish “angst,” may or may not have an object. This can be seen in the online version of Duden, where “Angst” is defined first as “a state of excitement [in the face of danger], and then as “a vague feeling of menace.” I love the illustration for that entry. That’s why I chose it for this post. It makes clear that “Angst” can indeed have an object!

A practice has arisen in among the intellectual elite in English-speaking countries, however, of using the German “Angst” to refer to a generalized anxiety without a readily identifiable object, but that is simply an affectation as even a cursory glance at a German, or German-English, dictionary will make clear. “Angst” is more often used by Germans to identify such a generalized anxiety than is “Furcht,” i.e., fear, but that isn’t its exclusive meaning and indeed, dictionaries suggest such a use is the exception rather than the rule.

The same thing could be said about the English “anxiety.” It can sometimes have an object and sometimes not. One can be “anxious” about a test, for example, or the visit of a relative, or one can be just generally anxious. “Anxiety” is more often used to identify a generalized kind of fearfulness, than are either “fear” or “dread,” but that suggests that “anxiety” is actually a good translation of the German, or Danish “Angst,” rather than an inadequate one.

Texts, as I explain to my students over and over again, need to be interpreted. There are not magic words that always and unequivocally precisely convey an author’s meaning. “Angst” doesn’t more precisely convey to English speakers the meaning of the German or Danish “Angst” than does “anxiety.” In fact, it is arguably inferior in an English translation of Kierkegaard in that it is an affectation and Kierkegaard generally abhors such affectations and scrupulously avoids them in his writings, except, of course when he is using them satirically.

 

Kierkegaard on Nature and Miracles: A Reply to Hampson

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on June 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

I promised in the post entitled “Scholarly Protocol” which addressed the form of UK theologian Daphne Hampson’s extended comment on my earlier post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong” that I would address the substance of her comment as well. As I said, I addressed that substance in the first of this series of posts in that Hampson’s comment merely summarizes an argument she makes in more extended form in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. It is clear, however, that Hampson still hasn’t understood where her interpretation of Kierkegaard goes wrong, so I feel obliged to address that issue in more detail.

Hampson argues that Kierkegaard rejects “causality,” and more specifically, that he rejects the idea that there are laws of nature. It is this rejection, she asserts, that conveniently allows him to believe in miracles. Her argument makes sense. That is, it’s coherent. It’s just that it’s wrong. First, Kierkegaard clearly accepts both causality and the idea that there are laws of nature. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard believed in miracles in the supernatural sense that sees them as a violation of those laws.

The first charge, that Kierkegaard rejects causality and the idea that there are laws of nature, can be swiftly and easily refuted. I already addressed the issue of Kierkegaard’s acceptance of causality in my remarks on Hampson’s misinterpretation of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the two distinct Aristotelian senses of change in my original post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong,” so I won’t revisit that argument here, but will look more specifically now at the issue of whether Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature.

Kierkegaard writes in one of his notebooks sometime between 1841-42 that “[i]n nature everything is bound by law and hence governed by necessity” (SKS 19, 263). One might be tempted to argue that this reference comes very early, before Kierkegaard published his most famous works, and that it is thus possible that he changed his mind later. There is no evidence, however, to support such a view.

What’s worse for Hampson, is that an equally unequivocal reference to the reality of laws of nature occurs in the very work Hampson cites in support of her claim that Kierkegaard didn’t believe in the reality of laws of nature. This reference appears on the last page of the second volume of Either-Or, at the end of a discourse entitled “The Upbuilding That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We are Always in the Wrong.” Kierkegaard refers there to “the law which carries the stars on their paths across the arch of heaven” and observes that it would be a “terrible catastrophe” if “the law of nature lost its power and everything disintegrated into dreadful chaos.”

Kierkegaard is no friend of chaos. He falls squarely on the Apollonian side of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide. Not only does Kierkegaard believe in the reality of laws of nature, he believes that these laws are essential to giving order to our experience and hence provide the conditions under which it is possible for that experience to have meaning.

But if Kierkegaard accepts that there are laws of nature, what are we to make of his apparent rejection of “naturalism” that Hampson cites in her comment? The answer is that “naturalism” is synonymous for Kierkegaard with an all-encompassing physical determinism. It isn’t the idea that there are laws of nature that Kierkegaard rejects, but the idea that these laws necessarily determine human behavior.

Kierkegaard clearly holds something like a Kantian view of the relation between the phenomenal and noumenal view of a person. This view can be found, for example, in the section of Either-Or Part II entitled “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” It may be challenging to make sense of how the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of a person can be brought together in such a way as to preserve human freedom, but Kant asserts they can be, and Kierkegaard appears to follow Kant in this respect. In fact, Kierkegaard distinguishes between “rationalism” and “naturalism” in a journal entry that examines this aspect of Kant’s thought (SKS 19, 159).

So much for Kierkegaard’s purported rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature. What about his position on miracles? The journal entry Hampson cites where Kierkegaard indicates that he rejects “naturalism” also includes a somewhat ambiguous reference to miracles. “Unfortunately,” it reads, “we know far too well what people in our day think of miracles” (SKS 24, 72). Those words are not Kierkegaard’s, however, but Bishop Mynster’s. Kierkegaard is quoting Mynster. But even if Kierkegaard is in agreement with Mynster’s words, it’s not clear exactly what those words mean. Do they refer to a pervasive rejection of the idea that are such things as miracles, or to the view that once there were miracles, but that miracles don’t happen any longer? Or could they be a disparaging reference to a propensity to focus on the purportedly supernatural aspect of miracles?

What is clear about Kierkegaard’s interest in miracles is that it is not their purportedly supernatural aspect that interests him. Kierkegaard is, in fact, openly contemptuous of people who focus on the supernatural rather than the edifying aspects of the accounts of miracles in the New Testatment. He asks, for example, in a discourse on Matthew 11:30 “My Yoke is Beneficial and My Burden Is Light” “is it really a greater miracle [Under] to change water into wine than for the heavy burden to continue to be heavy and yet be light!” (UDVS, 233).

What makes a burden that remains (one might be tempted to argue, according to natural law) heavy, nevertheless light, is not some violation of natural law. The “miracle” here is psychological, not physical.

The same emphasis on the miraculous as a psychological phenomenon rather than a physical one can be seen in Kierkegaard’s observation that

[a]t times, the circumstances determine that a penny signifies little more than it usually signifies, but if someone wants to perform a miracle [gjør et Vidunder], he makes the one penny signify just as much as all the world’s gold put together if he gives it out of compassion and the penny is the only one he has” (EUD, 362.)

That kind of generosity, or compassion, is certainly extremely rare but it doesn’t violate any natural law.

Kierkegaard’s interest in the miracle stories in the New Testament relates not to their purportedly supernatural aspect, but to the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful, or more particularly, edifying. This can be seen yet again in his observation in his journal on the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15.

Since it was through a miracle [Mirakel] that enough food was procured [skaffet] to feed five thousand men, one would [be inclined to] believe that no thought would be given to the leavings [der blev ødslet med Levningerne]. But no, God is never like that. Everything was carefully gathered up according to the Gospel. The human is to be unable to perform miracles [Mirakler] and yet to waste the leavings [at ødsle med Levninger]. The divine is to perform the miracle [Miraklet] of abundance and yet to collect the crumbs [samle Smulerne op] (SKS, 20, 110.)

Kierkegaard’s point here is not to emphasize that Christ had supernatural powers, but to communicate something about God’s nature that would have an edifying effect on the reader, as is clear from his retelling this same story in one of his published “Discourses on the Communion on Fridays.”

God is and can be just as scrupulous as he is great and can be great in showing mercy. For example, God’s nature always joins opposites, just as in the miracle [Mirakel] of the five small loaves. The people had nothing to eat–through a miracle a superabundance was procured [skaffes], but see, then Christ commands that everything left over be carefully collected. How divine! One person can be wasteful, another thrifty,; but if there were a human being who through a miracle [Mirakel] could at any moment divinely procure [skaffe] a superabundance, do you not think that he humanly would have disdained the crumbs [Smulerne], do you think that he–divinely would have collected the crumbs [Smulerne]! So also with God’s greatness in showing mercy. (CD, 295-96).

Don’t be misled by the fact that the term that is translated as “miracle” in the first passage is “Under,” the term that is translated as “miracle” in the second is ”Vidunder,” and the term that is translated as “miracle” in the third passage is “Mirakel.” Kierkegaard uses the terms “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” interchangeably, and indeed, they are synonyms according to both Ferrall-Repp and the venerable Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog. Kierkegaard’s references, for example, to “the miracle of faith” are sometimes “Troens Mirakel” (cf., e.g., WOL, 295; CD, 115) and other times “Troens Vidunder” (cf., e.g., FT, 18 and SLW, 163).

The Hongs appear to have had a misguided ambition to consistently translate “Vidunder” as “wonder” rather than “miracle.” Yet even the Hongs couldn’t help but realize that “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” are synonyms for Kierkegaard and hence translated Kierkegaard’s “Dette er Christendommens Undergjerning, vidunderligere end det at forvandle Vand til Viin” as “This is the miracle of Christianity, even more miraculous than turning water into wine.”

It actually makes sense that Kierkegaard chooses to focus not on the objective aspect of miracles but on the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful in that there are no references to “miracles” in the authorized Danish New Testament of Kierkegaard’s day. Every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears not as “Mirakel” in the Frederik VI’s New Testament, but as “Tegn,” i.e., “sign.” This, in turn, makes sense because every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears as σεμεἰον, i.e., “sign” in the original Greek. Signs require what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called an “interpretant.” That is, they are meaningful only subjectively. There is no such thing as an objective sign.

The question remains, of course, as to whether Kierkegaard believed miracles were supernatural events, but simply chose not to focus on that aspect of them. That’s a difficult question to answer. I argue in my book on his epistemology that Kierkegaard viewed all of empirical science as merely probabilistic and that suggests there is room for him to view miracles as merely exceptionally unusual, or highly improbable, events rather than events that violated laws of nature.

Support for this view can be found in the fact that Kierkegaard refers repeatedly to “the paradox” of Christianity as “improbable” rather than “impossible” (cf., e.g., Crumbs, 123, 159 and CUP, 195, 196). Support can also be found in the fact that when Kierkegaard refers to the feeding of the five thousand, he writes that food was miraculously “procured” (skaffet, see Ferrall-Repp) not “created” (skabt) that was sufficient to feed five thousand people. Who knows how it was procured. The implication of the word choice, however, is that the means used to secure it were not necessarily supernatural.

That said, even if Kierkegaard believes miracles are supernatural events, he does not reject the reality of laws of nature. There clearly are such laws, according to Kierkegaard, as the quotations with which this post began demonstrates even if, as I argue in my book Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard believes the correspondence to reality of any particular interpretation of these laws cannot be shown to be certain.

Hampson is deluded in thinking that Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature and that he does this to make room for his belief in miracles. There is undoubtedly someone in the history of thought who holds the view Hampson attributes to Kierkegaard. It just isn’t Kierkegaard. Hampson’s Kierkegaard is a fantastical creation of her own imagination, concocted, it would appear out of the ambition to present a grand, over-arching theory about the development of thought after the Enlightentment. And she has been spreading the contagion of this erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard all over the globe. First in 2013 at the bi-centenary of Kierkegaard’s birth in Copenhagen, Australia, and then in the United States, and then later in Budapest.

That is one of the dangers of what philosophers call “big picture” work: a grand over-arching theory that attempts to explain a particular development in the history of thought almost always requires that its author include thinkers on whose thought he or she is not expert. That’s why philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition tend to avoid it. It’s virtually impossible to do it well. It’s almost inevitably flawed, and sometimes very conspicuously so.

Theologians, on the other hand, appear not to have the same fear of error that generally characterizes philosophers. Hampson, by her own admission is working on a grand, over-arching theory that she plans to present in a book “provisionally entitled ‘Enlightenment and After.’” My guess is that she is going to fit her fantastical Kierkegaard into this development in a manner analogous to that in which Alasdair MacIntyre fit his fantastical Kierkegaard into the picture he presents of the historical development of ethical thought in his book After Virtue, though the distinction Kierkegaard makes in the journal entry cited above between “rationalism” and “naturalism” does not bode well for such a project.

The good side to this is that just as MacIntyre’s distortion of Kierkegaard’s thought provided an occasion for some really first-rate Kierkegaard scholarship, as is exemplified in John Davenport and Anthony Rudd’s excellent book Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, so will Hampson’s distortion of Kierkegaard, both in her book on him and in her forthcoming book, provide an occasion for much excellent Kierkegaard scholarship.

The really pressing question is how a book containing such a conspicuously and spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard could ever be published by a publisher such as Oxford? Something would appear to have gone horribly wrong with the process of peer review.

 

 

Haverford Kierkegaard Seminar

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on May 30, 2017 at 2:22 pm
Duck Pond, Haverford College

The Duck Pond, Haverford College

I had one of the best teaching experiences of my career last term. I taught an upper-level Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College. Haverford, for those of you who do not know, is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. It’s ranked number twelve on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 239 “National Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

Haverford is a college based in the Quaker tradition. “The Quaker religion,” observes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “is impossible to overpraise.” There’s always been a strong connection between Quakers and Kierkegaard because both emphasize the importance of the individual’s relation to God. My undergraduate professor and mentor, Bob Horn, the man who introduced me to Kierkegaard, taught briefly at Haverford before settling, finally, at Earlham College, another excellent Quaker institution, and the one from which I received my undergraduate degree.

Bob is a Kierkegaard scholar, and one of the most knowledgable people on Kierkegaard whom I have ever met. His Positivity and Dialectic, an examination of the thought of Hans Lassen Martensen, one of Kierkegaard’s teachers, is an essential resource for Kierkegaard scholars. Bob was succeeded at Haverford by Josiah Tompson, another Kierkegaard scholar. Thompson published The Lonely Labyrinth, an examination of Kierkegaard pseudonymous works, and Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays.

I knew first hand how intellectually stimulating is the environment of a small liberal arts college. A college with a Quaker history is even more inspiring, however, because there the emphasis is not merely on the development of the mind, but also of the spirit. I also knew of the Haverford-Kierkegaard connection, hence I was very excited when I was offered the opportunity to become, even if only briefly, a part of that tradition.

Jerry Miller, author of the critically acclaimed Stain Removal: Ethics and Race, and the chair of Haverford’s philosophy department, went out of his way to make me feel welcome, as did Kathleen Wright, a tenured full professor at Haverford and a specialist on German idealism and Heidegger, who generously allowed me to share her office.

I could not have had a better group of students. We did a series of short essays in preparation for the term paper. Those essays were mostly summaries of various portions of the texts we were reading at the time they were assigned. This, I explained to them, was to help them become familiar with the practice of providing background for one’s argument before making the argument itself.

They were all good writers. Where they really shone, however, was in their term papers. Each one chose a challenging and important topic, and each did such a good job with the topic that I think their papers could actually be helpful to scholars wrestling with the same issues, so I asked them if I could post their papers to this blog. The students whose papers are mentioned below generously agreed to allow me to do that and to include their names. What follows is a short summary of each paper, along with a link to a pdf of the paper.

I’m going to present the papers in alphabetical order based on the student’s last name. First is Courtney Ahmed’s paper. Courtney’s paper, “Love in Philosophical Crumbs,” examines an issue that has always been of particular interest to me: the relation between human love and divine love. Here is the intro to Courtney’s paper. Remember, this is an undergraduate paper!

In Philosophical Crumbs, Søren Kierkegaard asserts the idea that Christian faith rests on the unequivocal acceptance that the eternal God’s temporal appearance in lowest human form was purely an act of love. Acceptance of this fact has the power to transform those who are able to both grasp and set aside its sheer implausibility. Is it possible, however, for one to understand and accept God’s love— the fundamental premise of Christianity— and thereby effect the transformation of faith without experiencing human love as a precursor? I will argue through the lens of Kierkegaard that no, it is impossible to know what it means to be loved by God unless one has experienced love manifested in human relationships.

Ian Andolsek was a senior philosophy major who actually wrote his senior thesis on Kierkegaard. Andolsek’s paper, “Towards a Deontic Kierkegaardian Virtue Ethics,” is not only well written, it displays an impressive grasp of the breadth of theoretical ethics. The following paragraph is extracted from early in the paper. I chose to post it, rather than the intro because I think it contains more information concerning the substance of Andolsek’s paper.

Kierkegaard’s ethical project is motivated by his strongly held the conviction that the purpose of ethics has been nearly universally misunderstood, from the Ancients, to Kant, to most notably, Hegel. My picture will present Kierkegaard as an analytically rigorous ethical philosopher who extends a cogent and compelling critique of Hegel’s ethical view in the Philosophy of Right to construct a positive ethical framework.

John Chip’s paper, “The Role of Aesthetics in Soren Kierkegaard’s Ethics and Beyond,” addresses an issue that could not be more important to those of use who love Kierkegaard not merely for the substance of his thought, but for the beauty of his prose style. Here is Chip’s intro:

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher active in the 19th century. In this paper, I will explore Kierkegaard’s concept of aesthetics and its relation to ethics and religion and argue that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, aesthetics can have a positive role in an ethical-religious life. First, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s primary concerns and summarize Kierkegaard’s views on how the conception of aesthetics functions in the ethical and religious life. Then, I will identify passages in which it is possible to understand aesthetics playing a positive role in an ethical-religious life.

Kevin Connolly’s paper “The Search for Eternal Happiness – Can Individual_s Subjects Assist One Another?” does just what it says. It examines the extent to which people can help one another in coming to understand eternal, unchanging truth. This is a hugely important topic in Kierkegaard scholarship because Kierkegaard often speaks as if he thinks people can have no role in helping one another to come to understand this truth. But if he really does believe this, then why, Connolly asks, did he write? Here is Connolly’s introduction.

In his Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the pursuit of an “eternal happiness” as being an essentially individual enterprise rooted in ethical-religious development. Although some readers may be inclined to interpret Kierkegaard as claiming that individual subjects can do nothing to assist one another in making ethical-religious progress, such a view is incommensurate with several other positions Kierkegaard takes throughout these works. Specifically, this paper will show this viewpoint to be incongruous with the many remarks Kierkegaard makes concerning a subject’s decision-making and relationship with God, an understanding of how interpersonal communication works, and his commentary pertaining to religious addresses. It will thereafter be clear that Kierkegaard believes that subjects can indirectly assist others by inducing them to act and forge their own way toward ethical-religious development, but cannot themselves guide them along a pre-charted path to ethical-religious development.

Leonor Suarez’s paper, “How Does One Learn that They are Outside of the Truth_?” looks at the issue of whether it is possible to come to know one is outside the truth without God’s help, which is to say that it looks at the relation between what Kierkegaard calls “guilt consciousness” and “sin consciousness.” Suarez’s intro is so short that rather than present it here, I’ll just direct you to the paper. You will not be disappointed!

 

My Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford was something special. It’s an experience I hope I will be able to repeat someday.

On Scholarly Protocol

In Publishing News, Translation issues, Uncategorized on May 25, 2017 at 9:06 pm

UK Theologian Daphne Hampson has commented on my earlier post on her book, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. In fact, she has written a five-page response to the post. For some reason, however, she posted her comment not to my post on her book, but to my later post “Kierkegaard’s Conservatism,” so you will have to go there to read her comment, or more correctly, comments, in full. I could have replied to her comment there as well, but given the effort she appears to have put into her comment, it seemed our conversation merited a more prominent place on this blog than the “comments” section of an earlier post, hence I have decided to respond to her comments here.

“Given Marilyn Piety’s bombastically rude comments in your paper,” she begins, apparently unaware that the entire “paper” (i.e., blog) is mine and not simply the one post, “on my ‘Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique’ (Oxford University Press, 2013) … I feel obliged to respond.”

“First a minor point,” she continues, “My translating Kierkegaard’s ‘Begrebet Angest’ as ‘The Concept Angst’ is not ‘simply an affectation.’ ” She then holds forth on the difficulty of translating the “Danish/German ‘Angst’ as if I were challenging her understanding of the term rather than pointing out her violation of scholarly protocol in making up her own title for a work that already exists in translation under a different title––i.e., The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton, 1981 and W.W. Norton, 2014). When I first encountered Hampson’s reference to “The Concept Angst,” I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new translation of the work under that title. There isn’t.

I firmly believe that “anxiety” is a fine translation of the Danish “angest.” That wasn’t the point, though. The point, as was driven home to me relentlessly by my professor and M.A. thesis director at Bryn Mawr, George L. Kline, was that scholars are not allowed to make up their own titles for works that already exist under other titles. The confusion that would ensue if they were allowed to do this doesn’t bear thinking about. What if scholars suddenly felt free to translate Plato’s ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΑ as “Civil Polity,” or “The Business of a Statesman” (both of which are acceptable translations according to my edition of Liddell-Scott) rather than the traditional Republic? Or what if they decided to use the subtitle, “On Political Justice,” rather than the main title to refer to the work? Many people simply would not know what work they were referring to.

Scholars don’t get to make up their own titles for works simply because they think they can do better than the translator of the work. I had to refer to Kierkegaard’s Philosophiske Smuler as “Philosophical Fragments” whenever I spoke, or wrote, about it in English right up until the time my own translation of this work appeared under the title Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). I knew “fragments” was not a good translation of “smuler” but still, I had to use it, because it was the only English title of the work a the time. If Hampson had done her own translation of Begrebet Angest, and decided to use The Concept Angst, she’d have been perfectly within her rights. She didn’t do that, though. She just decided she liked her own title better than the official title.

Making up her own title for Begrebet Angest isn’t the only violation of scholarly protocol of which Hampson is guilty. Her comment to my post contains numerous violations. For example, she resorts to ad hominem arguments (e.g., impugning my motives in criticizing her book without producing any evidence to support such a charge), and non-argumentative rhetoric (e.g., “bombastically rude,” “ridiculous,” “ire”). She also invokes the infamous argument from authority, discredited in the Enlightenment, when she defends her competence to write a book on Kierkegaard, not on the basis of her years spent studying his works, but because she “holds a doctorate in theology (from Harvard),” “held a post in systematic theology for twenty-five years,” “had a previous Oxford doctorate in modern history,” and “a Master’s with distinction in Continental philosophy.”

“I have been teaching the text which my book considers throughout my career” she writes. That didn’t surprise me because the overwhelming impression one gets upon reading the book is that it is a compilation of lecture notes from an undergraduate seminar on Kierkegaard taught by someone who doesn’t actually know much about Kierkegaard, but was nonetheless required to teach a seminar on him (a not uncommon phenomenon). I say “undergraduate” seminar because Hampson goes on at some length about Kierkegaard’s “epistemology” without a single reference to any of the scholarly works on that subject (i.e., Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Sören Kierkegaard [Editio Academica, 1973], Martin Slotty’s Kierkegaard’s Epistemology [originally published in German in 1915, now in English translation], and my own Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology [Baylor, 2010]). You couldn’t get away with that in a graduate seminar. You would have to look at at least some of the relevant secondary literature.

I want to be clear here. It is not my view that only people who have devoted their entire professional lives to the study of Kierkegaard’s thought should venture to write scholarly works on it. It is entirely possible for non-specialists to do excellent work on Kierkegaard. Jonathan Lear comes to mind. When I remarked that Hampson was “not a Kierkegaard scholar,” that was not to discredit her book, but to venture an explanation for how it could be so conspicuously wrong on so many fundamental points.

Hampson’s is an impressive intellect, there is no question about that. It would appear, however, that she is a victim of confirmation bias. That is, she thinks that she sees things in Kierkegaard’s works (e.g., his purported pre-modern tendencies, or his supposed rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature) because she expects to see them.

I’ll look at the substance of Hampson’s comments in a later post. My objective here was simply to address the form of her comments, not their substance. In fact, I addressed the substance in my original post and appear to have done a sufficiently good job of that to have hit a nerve, so to speak.

The reason I wanted to address the form of Hampson’s comments was that it illustrates many of the things I try to impress upon my students that they must not do in their own writing, so it occurred to me that once the post was up, I could direct them to it as a teaching exercise.

Speaking of teaching, I taught a Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College this past term. It was a small seminar with only five students, all excellent. They have given me permission to post their papers to this blog, so in my next post, I’m going to talk about my the class, give brief summaries of each paper, and include links to downloadable pdfs of them. Each one is so good, that I think it would actually be helpful to many readers of this blog.

After that, I’ll return to Hampson.

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm
a-royal-affair-cover_

Advertisement for the Danish movie “A Royal Affair”

Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Uncategorized on November 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

I think of scholarship as egalitarian. I don’t know about all disciplines, but most academic journals in the field of philosophy do what’s called “blind” reviewing. Scholars send articles to journal editors. The editors then send those articles along to experts in the relevant fields (e.g., Plato, Kant, contemporary ethics, the philosophy of mind) without identifying the author of the article. The people vetting the articles don’t know who wrote them. They don’t know whether the author is already a recognized authority in the relevant field or a complete newcomer. They don’t even know whether the author has an academic appointment, is an “independent scholar,” or even a lowly graduate student. All they have is the article, so they are more or less forced to evaluate it on its own merits. The system isn’t perfect, of course. Unconventional or iconoclastic work is not always evaluated fairly, and the work of the more prominent scholars in given fields can sometimes be identified even without their names being attached.

Still, blind reviewing goes a long way toward ensuring that good work gets recognized and promoted. Unfortunately, book publishing is not so egalitarian. Some publishers do blind reviewing, but many do not. Once a scholar has attained a name for him or herself in a given field, that is, once a scholar has become what one might call an academic celebrity, they are given a wide berth in terms of their perceived authority. Big name scholars can often get away with speaking, and sometimes even writing books, on subjects outside their area of expertise.

Daphne Hampson’s new book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) is a case in point. Hampson is a prominent U.K. theologian, not a Kierkegaard scholar. She gives the impression that she is a Kierkegaard scholar by throwing around a few Danish terms. She refers, for example to Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst. When I saw that I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new English translation of this work of which I was unaware. There isn’t. Hampsen’s substitution of the Danish Angst for “Anxiety” in the title of this work is simply an affectation.

Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers who are beloved by people who are not themselves scholars; hence reviews of new editions of his works, and occasionally even of new scholarly books on his thought, sometimes appear in the illustrious New York Review of Books. The Nov. 10th edition, in fact, contains a review of Hampson’s book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Rebellion.” The reviewer is a Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Havard and the author of Adorno and Existence (Harvard, 2016)

It isn’t all that clear why the NYRB decided to review Hampson’s book, or why they chose Gordon to review it. While both Hampson and Gordon have a certain familiarity with Kierkegaard because of their respective areas of scholarly expertise (Hampson’s in the history of theological thought and Gordon’s in modern European intellectual history), neither is a Kierkegaard scholar. The book is riddled with problems, problems that will be conspicuous to most Kierkegaard scholars, but which Gordon failed to spot. Hampson gets Kierkegaard’s epistemology wrong. She claims erroneously that Kierkegaard “has very little hold on the idea that there is a regularity to nature” (p 29). She falsely accuses him of being unfamiliar with David Strauss’s ground breaking book on the historical Jesus, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) (1835).

These are just a few of the problems with Hampson’s book, problems to which Gordon fails to alert prospective readers. In fact, Gordon says very little about the content of the book, but restricts himself to giving a general overview of Kierkegaard’s works and his place, or presumed place, in the history of thought that has little directly to do with Hampson’s treatment of Kierkegaard.

It’s generally dangerous to venture to write a book on a thinker, as well as to review a book on a thinker, on whose thought you do not specialize. And, to quote Kierkegaard, “what is worse for those brave souls who nevertheless dare to undertake such a project, the difficulty is not one that will confer celebrity on those who preoccupy themselves with it” (Philosophical Crumbs, p. 113). Unfortunately, Hampson’s book is so off base, at least in its chapter on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, that it amounts to a caricature of scholarship.

A single example will suffice to make this point. Hampson accuses Kierkegaard scholars of failing to appreciate a crucial fact about his view of the natural world. Kierkegaard, she charges, “thinks the world a kind of random place in which just about anything can happen.” Kierkegaard, she continues, lacks any sense for “the regularity of nature” or that natural events are subject to natural law (p. 92).

Unfortunately for Hampson, Kierkegaard scholars have not missed this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought because this isn’t an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard did believe in the existence of laws of nature. Hampson rightly observes that Kierkegaard “picks up the distinction in Aristotle between a ‘change’ which consists in a coming into existence (kinesis) and a change which presupposes existence (alloiosis) (what we might call a change taking place within the causal nexus),” but she fails to appreciate the significance of this distinction for Kierkegaard.

Hampson even goes so far as to remark that it is “strange” that Kierkegaard “does not appreciate that there is any real distinction between the two kinds of ‘change’“ (p. 91) identified by Aristotle, given that he refers to them himself when speaking about the change of coming to be. She chastises Kierkegaard for writing “150 years after Newton,” and yet failing to have any “sense of the regularity with which change takes place in predetermined fashion within a causal nexus” (91).

It would be pretty weird if Kierkegaard failed to have any sense for what one could call the “regularity of nature.” As most Kierkegaard scholars know, however, Kierkegaard does have such a sense, as is easily seen by anyone who pays careful attention to the portion of the Crumbs from which Hampson gets this strange impression. After Kierkegaard explains that “[e]verything that has come to be is eo ispo historical, he goes on to say that

That thing, the becoming of which is a simultaneous becoming (Nebeneinander, Space), has no other history than this, but even seen in this way (en masse), independently of what an ingenious consideration in a more specific sense calls the history of nature, nature has a history.

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be, which is the past; and that it is, the present) (p. 143, emphasis added).

That is, nature’s whole “history” is that it came to be at some point. After that, the “changes” that characterize nature do not represent change in Aristotle’s sense of kinesis but only in his sense of alloiosis. Kierkegaard takes pains to be clear on this point. Purely natural events are changes in something (i.e., nature) that already exists. They do not come about freely, but are subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history.” It has only an “intimation of a history” in that it came to be at some point. Mountain ranges do not become mature in the same sense that people do. Human beings have choices. Human events are not like plate tectonics.

How could Hampson miss that? It’s right there in the text. That’s why the purported fact of Kierkegaard’s failure to appreciate “the regularity of nature” has been given what Hampson calls “scant recognition” by Kierkegaard scholars. They don’t recognize it because it isn’t there. It is hard to imagine a more spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard than Hampson’s on this point.

How could Hampson have gotten Kierkegaard so wrong? My guess is that it is because her reading of Kierkegaard is driven by her political agenda. She appears determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality.

Good thing readers of the NYRB have Gordon to alert them to this gross error in Hampson’s book! Except that Gordon doesn’t do that. Indeed, there are a host of problems his misses.

Like Hampson, Gordon isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar, so he doesn’t know enough about Kierkegaard to be able to identify when Hampson’s reading goes awry. He seems, in fact, to have a somewhat caricatured view of Kierkegaard himself. He’s correct, for example, in his claim that, according to Kierkegaard, there’s “an absolute chasm between God and humanity,” but not in his claim that that chasm makes God “wholly other” from human beings.

“[I]f God is absolutely different from human beings,” observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, “this cannot have its basis in what human beings owe to God (for to this extent they are related [beslægtet, literally “related” as in part of the same family])(119). According to Kierkegaard, the difference between human beings and God is sin. Sin keeps people from being able to see the likeness between themselves and God. The likeness is there, Kierkegaard believes, however, and can be appreciated, to some extent anyway, through the eyes of faith.

Kierkegaard did not, as Gordon claims, have a “disabling contempt for the public good.” His attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died was motivated in part by his outrage over the church’s own contempt for the public good, at least in the spiritual sense. Kierkegaard’s concern for the public good was not restricted, however, to this sense. The Danish scholar Peter Tudvad demonstrated in his meticulously documented watershed book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard not only gave considerable sums of money to the poor (pp. 370-377), but that he even went so far as to share his lodgings with a destitute family for several years (pp. 348-354).

Gordon attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Kierkegaard’s thought to the bicentennial of his birth in 2013, as well as to the publication of Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in 2000. He is undoubtedly correct about the bicentennial. What caused Kierkegaard’s name to remain in the headlines of Danish newspapers from 2000 until 2005, however, was not so much the publication of Garff’s biography as it was Tudvad’s revelations that the biography was riddled with factual errors and passages plagiarized from earlier Danish biographies of Kierkegaard, as well as the revelation that Garff had failed to fix these problems before the book was translated into English. Tudvad’s book, not Garff’s, is what gave scholars a fresh, and more accurate, impression of Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

But then it’s unlikely that Gordon would have known any of this, since he isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar. His book on Adorno touches on Kierkegaard, but that isn’t enough to make him a Kierkegaard scholar, so why did the NYRB have him review Hampson’s book? Could the answer be so straightforward as that Gordon teaches at Harvard? Talk about being “premodern,” is the NYRB so conservative that it’s actually resurrecting “the argument from authority,” the darling of medieval scholastics, so that the primary credential one needs to review a book for them is that one teaches at an ivy league school? A glance at the “contributors” section of the Nov. 10 edition in which Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book appears seems to support such a view. Three other reviews in that edition are by people from Harvard, three by people from Columbia, one by someone from Princeton and another by someone from Yale.

I’ll confess that I’m an avid reader of the NYRB and generally enjoy the articles it contains. I read it, in part, because I don’t have time to read every scholarly book that’s published in a given year (or even in a given week). I know that not everything that’s published is good, so I count on the NYRB and its stable of what I had hitherto assumed to be expert reviewers to sort through this material for me, to point out to me what is worth reading and what isn’t, to summarize for me some of the works that I’d ideally like to read, but probably won’t have time to read, so that I’ll be able to keep up with the latest developments in scholarship outside of my tiny field.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the reviews in the New York Review of Books are as misleading as is Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure most of them are as good as them seem. But how do I know which reviews are reliable and which are not?

I’m plagued now by a certain, you know, angst.

(This piece appeared originally under the title “The Angst of Scholarship at the NYRB: Getting Kierkegaard Wrong, Twice,” in the 8 November issue of Counterpunch. )